Content creators often suffer from tunnel vision when it comes to our content. When you’re too focused on the ideas behind the content, you may never step back and think about if it’ll even make sense to the readers that are meant to consume it. Readability is one metric to consider when it comes to any piece of content you publish. Is the vocabulary accessible? Are the sentences the appropriate length? The answers to these questions, and more, are factored into readability scores. Here’s a crash course in readability to help you maximize the next piece of content you create.

Understanding and measuring readability

It’s helpful to contextualize what readability is and how it’s measured before jumping into how you can apply these principles to your content. Here’s how readability is defined by the Nielsen Norman Group:

Readability measures the complexity of the words and sentence structure in a piece of content. The assumption behind this metric is that complex sentences are harder to parse and read than simpler ones. It’s usually reported as the reading level (stated as years of formal education) needed to easily read the text.”

Best practice for content creators includes writing at an eighth-grade reading level for the general public, and a twelfth-grade reading level for educated or specialized audiences.

There are several online tools that measure the readability of your content, such as Hemmingway. However, Microsoft Word comes with an easily overlooked, but very useful, readability tool that uses two different tests.

Flesch Reading Ease test

The Flesch Reading Ease test rates text out of 100 points. The higher the score, the easier it is to understand the text. For an eighth-grade reading level, you want to aim for a score between 60 and 70. For a twelfth-grade reading level, you’ll be looking at a range between 50 and 60.

Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level test

The Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level test categories text according to U.S. school grade levels. An eighth-grade reading level is reflected as a score of 8.0, and a twelfth-grade grade reading level is reflected as a score of 12.0.

If you try the tests above and find that your content isn’t scoring as it should be, use the following four tips to streamline and simplify your content for a wider audience.

1. Keep it skim-friendly

Most readers skim and scan content for relevant information, rather than reading word for word. Endless paragraphs of gray-on-white text just won’t do.

Humans have limited brain power when it comes to short-term memory. You can’t expect your reader to remember everything about your content at all times. It’s up to you as a writer to make sure your reader can tell the who, what, why, and how of your content at a glance. In order to accomplish this, make sure your content has most, if not all, of the following:

  • Clear titles and headlines
  • Short paragraphs
  • Simple sentences
  • Bulleted lists
  • Images and infographics

As a bonus, the checklist above will also put you in a pretty good spot when it comes to SEO (search engine optimization).

2. Write with your reader in mind

Know your audience. If you’re writing a guide about brining a turkey, don’t write it as if you’re talking to a five-star chef. If you’re writing advice about buying your first car, don’t write as if you’re talking to a seasoned car enthusiast. You get the idea—unless you’re writing for experts, don’t use expert language. It’s also confusing and off-putting to the reader, as well as difficult to read.

However, there are a few scenarios where industry jargon and complex language make sense:

  • B2B content that targets experienced professionals
  • Investor relations areas of corporate sites
  • Internal content for industry professionals
  • Content that focuses on scientific or advanced topics

Under pretty much any other circumstances, it’s best to steer clear of this sort of language and stick to widely-known terminology instead.

3. Get a second (or third) opinion

You might assume your words speak for themselves, but there’s a good chance you’re wrong. Readability is hard for you, the writer, to judge because you know what point you’re trying to make. It’s similar to how a mathematician can grasp a complex equation, because they’re the ones who formulated it. But what may seem easy to follow to you, may feel like another language to your reader.

This is why it’s important to have your content proofed by someone else. Ideally, it’ll be someone who has no experience in what you’re writing about. This could be a colleague, a friend, or a family member—anyone who can tell you impartially if your content makes sense or not. With their feedback in mind, you can approach your content from a fresh perspective in the revision process.

4. Don’t forget about web design

Readability has to do with both the content itself and the design of the site it’s displayed on. After all, it doesn’t matter how well your content is written if your reader finds themselves squinting and straining to read it. Even the clearest, most straightforward content can be rendered un-readable by poor design and a lack of focus on user experience.

Keep the following in mind when you visually evaluate your website for readability.

User-friendly fonts

To maximize readability, Usabilla recommends sticking with sans serif fonts such as Arial, Helvetica, and Veranda. As far as font size go, there’s no one right answer. But, keep in mind that the recommended distance between your eyes and a monitor is 28 inches—much further than you might hold a book or your phone. So, larger font sizes generally work better than smaller ones.

Contrast counts

Reading from a screen is tiring to begin with, and poor contrast makes it even more tiring. You should aim to make your content accessible with high contrast color combinations, like black text on a white background, and steer clear from bad combinations, like white on yellow or pink on blue. Your readers (and their eyes) will appreciate it.

Next Steps

Writing for web is much different than writing for books, magazines, or any other medium. The unique digital landscape creates a pressing challenge for content creators looking to make sure their words count. Fortunately, this challenge isn’t as scary as it sounds. If you keep the tips in this article in mind next time you start writing a piece of content, you’ll be well on your way to easy-reading success.